Cary Tennis on feminism and names

Cary Tennis, in Salon, has an impressive response today to a reader wondering whether to change her name upon marriage.  In particular, it begins with a beautiful statement on feminism:

I think that the groundbreaking work of feminism, the work for which the pioneers, theoreticians, tacticians, adherents, proponents, members-by-charter and even secret, closet members of this world-historically important movement of liberation, the important work, the very crucial work, has been that work which untied the unconscious bonds of slavery that women had worn for millennia, untied those bonds by digging deeply into daily assumptions, those beliefs we held most sacredly because we did not know we held them. It was this difficult and collective work of self-discovery that untied a system of male dominance that was so hard to untie because it was, as it were, tied from underneath and behind, impossible to dismantle by oneself, like a chastity belt locked by the departing master. It was in the peeling back of layers to see how one privilege lay upon another, how the links of chain wound out of sight through hidden labyrinths of oppression. Those discoveries have resulted in great freedoms for women and in new customs and cultural practices. Some of those practices are important and some are seemingly trivial; it is easy for the young to mock some of these practices if they do not know the history.

After some more discussion (worth reading), he concludes:

My choice would be to go ahead and choose a name that puts it in the record books, that puts one in the win column for feminism.That way, when your kids say, Why do you have a different name from Daddy? you can tell them that there was a time when women were not free to choose what name to take, when women basically belonged to the man they married, when they had to obey him and, in fact, had to obey pretty much any man they saw on the street, whoever he may be, just because he was a man, much the same way that there was a time that black people belonged to white people and had to obey pretty much any white person at all, and could not choose their own names, but were given the names of the white people they belonged to.But it’s your decision. That’s the point. If you want to take your husband’s name, then take it. You are free. The important thing is that you are free.

(Thanks, Jender-Mom, for the link!)

Update: On further reflection, one might worry that Tennis thinks feminism, while noble, is a thing of the past that has accomplished all its goals; and that all there is now to do is to commemorate it. And it is true that his focus is on feminism’s history. But there’s nothing remotely dismissive about it– none of that “feminism was great but now there’s no need let’s all get over it” stuff.

3 thoughts on “Cary Tennis on feminism and names

  1. My dilemma is one step ahead of that woman’s. I kept my old last name when I got married, for no other reason than I was used to it, it’s been mine all my life and why give it up, really?

    Now my husband and I are having our first child – what should this child’s last name be? Hyphenation would be tantamount to abuse, as would smushing both our names together – 14 syllables in all, HELP!

    Add to this the fact that he cares deeply about his last name (his family has always been into geneology and they trace their roots back 4 centuries), and I don’t care about mine – I can’t even stand my parents.

    We’re falling into “default” mode – my last name as the kid’s middle name, his last name as the kid’s last name – and I am vaguely uncomfortable with it, while still knowing it’s the only viable option for us.

  2. Nandini, At least families with mixed names are now relatively common, so you won’t have to be explaining your decision to everyone who asks for a parent’s name.

  3. My husband and I named ourselves after our (hypothetical at the time) children to avoid the hyphenation problem. We kept our “maiden” names at work.

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